synthetically indelible

Something I noticed in film school was that I could accurately estimate the age of my professors by the movies they cited.  It took a while for me to notice the pattern, but it was there: the older faculty seemed rooted in the 1950s and early ’60s, and as you went younger the recurring references shifted, from say, Sunset Boulevard and On the Waterfront to Easy Rider, maybe all the way up to Jaws.  Then nothing.

This bothered me.  I was in film school at the end of the 1980s, and thought people acquiring the language should learn the latest idiom.  And we did, in Thursday-night sneaks of big-budget films about to be released.  But back in class, when my profs went to explain sound mixing, or shot design, or story structure, the frames of reference slid backward again.

And because the examples were keyed to the age of the instructor, I knew I wasn’t getting the whole story.  We were looking backward through eyes focused to only one distance.

On the Waterfront with eye chartWhen I came to the CSU Office of the Chancellor I taught basic screenwriting on a volunteer basis.  It seemed important to get out of the admin and faculty-governance ranks once in a while and connect with students in the act of learning.  I kept at it until travel got in the way.

Only get this:  I noticed that in class we would talk about how to address a typical story challenge – for example, giving your antagonist a plausible motivation – and my contribution always included outdated examples.

Yep.  I still prepared excerpts of current films to study together, but my best on-the-fly recollections extended from roughly “The Sting” up to “Pulp Fiction,” maybe a two-and-a-half-decade stretch that ended a dozen or so years before the class meeting.  It isn’t that I’ve stopped seeing movies; they just don’t sink in the way they used to.

I didn’t know anyone else had noticed this phenomenon until I came across it in a blog that Maria Popova writes, called Brain Pickings.  From yesterday’s:

. . . we are most likely to vividly remember experiences we had between the ages of 15 and 25. What the social sciences might simply call “nostalgia” psychologists have termed the “reminiscence bump” and, [BBC broadcaster and psychology writer Claudia] Hammond argues, it could be the key to why we feel like time speeds up as we get older:

“The reminiscence bump involves not only the recall of incidents; we even remember more scenes from the films we saw and the books we read in our late teens and early twenties . . .”

Most fascinating of all, however, is the reason the “reminiscence bump” happens in the first place: Hammond argues that because memory and identity are so closely intertwined, it is in those formative years, when we’re constructing our identity and finding our place in the world, that our memory latches onto particularly vivid details in order to use them later in reinforcing that identity.

Claudia Hammond BBCMy first thought on reading this was relief, like finding out there’s a diagnosis for what you thought might just be in your head.

Even the identity thing makes sense:  for other kinds of memories my own “reminiscence bump” is the expected length, but for film it was artificially prolonged by association with my emerging identity.  (In the same way, I’d expect someone who planned a career in the military to have unusually vivid, lasting memories that extend well beyond basic training, but not indefinitely.)

My second thought was that, if this is the received wisdom about how we learn for the long term, then maybe higher ed should be more systematic about exploiting it.  I’ve seen older grad students get that surge of retention, as they remake their identities toward a second career.  Everything is suddenly vivid to them, including the friendships.

Could we fabricate that?  As we aim experiential learning toward those dispositional traits we call “habits of mind,” I wonder whether we can also get intentional about the connection to personal identity, creating the synthetically indelible.

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